Each week, they would cram into a tight circle in my small apartment for Bible study. I’d been given the privilege of mentoring them, these young people who carried the weight of more trauma than their young bones should be asked to bear. As we gathered, we’d discuss Scripture, share stories and dreams, process life, and pray together. At first, they were more reserved than I knew them to be, but over time, they relaxed into that space and began to share more openly. Some of them even became willing to pray out loud.
One of these brave ones was a young woman I’ll call Julia. Julia had the sort of personality that could instantly fill a room. Her laughter was infectious, and you could often hear her from the other side of the shared common room talking and joking with friends. The first time she volunteered to pray, I could feel myself physically leaning toward her to try to make out the words. Her normally lively voice hushed to a barely audible, mumbling whisper, as she employed words and phrases I would never have heard her utter in any other time and place. I referred to it as her “prayer voice.”
Praying real prayers
At some point in Julia’s life, she had been taught—implicitly or explicitly—that she could not talk to God in her normal voice. She had been taught to quiet parts of herself, to use “appropriate” or somehow “holy” words and phrases. To put it frankly, she had been taught that prayer required a façade.
In some ways, the overt way this manifested itself in Julia’s prayers made it easier to address. There was an obvious and audible shift in her voice, and we worked together to help her feel as comfortable talking to God as she did to me.
Too many of us, though, have a “prayer voice.” Too many of us, I fear, have been taught some version of the same lie that prayer requires some level of filtration. I’m speaking here of how we pray in pain.
I remember sitting with a prayer journal, trying to still my thoughts enough to fit within the narrow line of ink on the page. But in the nightmarish numbness of depression and, later, the hollowed out hopes of infertility, stilling a swirl of thoughts wasn’t the only problem. As pain broke me open, I found that in the stillness, the issue was not finding the words to express it, but rather the horror of what some of those most honest thoughts were. There were words too scary to say out loud, to see reflected back in black and white, so these words went unspoken, unwritten, as if containing them in the silence of my mind would be enough to hide them from the Spirit of God.
I know intellectually and theologically that hiding my thoughts from God is impossible. The psalmist writes, “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me….Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely” (Psalm 139:1, 4 NIV). I knew that then. I know it now. But the rawness of pain has a way of luring us into silence and hiddenness. “I can’t say this to God,” something within our subconscious tells us. So the pen stills. Our voice stops. And the hurt festers.
A learned “prayer voice”
In her book More Than An Aspirin, Gay Hubbard writes, “We deal with God in an overly polite manner, as though He were fragile, delicate, and easily offended. We approach God as though He were an elderly, easily-shocked Victorian maiden aunt. In what [Walter] Brueggemann has termed fraudulent piety, we behave as though God were too nice for the raw, powerful, dangerous reality of our human experience” (pg. 279),
Our prayer voice may not involve an audible change in voice tone or volume, like Julia’s did. But in these moments we have a prayer voice just the same. We decide in these moments what thoughts, reactions, and requests are fit for God’s ears—and which would offend his “delicate” sensibilities.
And yet our holy Scriptures give us permission to bring our honest, unfiltered pain before God. In the lament psalms we are given words to pray our pain. We are given freedom to speak the unspeakable things before God.
Miroslav Volf once wrote in his book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, “Rage belongs before God.” So do our doubts, despair, fears, every untamed stage of grief, and those haunting questions that may never have an answer. Lament is how we do this. Lament allows us to bring those thoughts hidden in shame and darkness into the light. Lament is where healing begins.
In the Bible, lament psalms follow a typical pattern that can most simply be summarized as protest, petition, praise. The words of protest tell God what is wrong. The words of petition express what the psalmist would like God to do about it. And the words of praise, far from the smiling “everything is fine” self-denial that often gets prescribed in the face of pain, are a steadying anchor in the character and work of God, even while the pain lingers and those petitions go as-yet unresolved.
The voice of lament
Our prayers of lament bring us into the good company of Elijah and Job, David and Jeremiah, and even Jesus himself, as well as the countless saints who have lived in the millennia since, who have poured out their hurts before the God who sees, the God who hears, the God who keeps company with the brokenhearted.
Though my prayers of lament begin as an expression of my honest hurt, I have found they do not end there. As the unspeakable things are spoken and the thoughts I’d rather not admit exist in my mind are prayed out loud, I find slowly, oh so slowly, something within me begins to shift. As I pray, “where are you, Lord?” I am reminded of his faithful presence with me, even when I can’t feel it. As I pray “how long?” I find moment-by-moment strength to take another breath. As I honestly process grief and anger and disillusionment, I find, not a magical way out of my pain, but a steady way through it. Each lament brings another, sometimes completely imperceptible, piece of my heart closer to healing.
As I unlearn and relearn my “prayer voice,” I find the simple, unfiltered confidence of a child and the freedom of an honesty that requires no façade and no filter. Through the tutor of lament, I’m finding a way to pray in my pain—and find a God who meets me with grace in every faltering word.